On the Ship of Theseus

Consider the following scenario:

According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the minotaur and then escaped onto a ship going to Delos. Each year, the Athenians commemorated this victory by performing repairs on the ship and taking it on a pilgrimage to Delos.

After many centuries, if the ship on which Theseus sailed is heavily repaired and nearly every part replaced with a new one, is it still considered Theseus’s ship?

This question was raised by ancient philosophers and is still debated today.

Some argue that the new ship is the same as the old one because it is "numerically" identical - it has the same number of parts. Others claim that the new ship is "qualitatively" different because Theseus never sailed on it with its new parts. So they argue that the new ship cannot be considered the same as the old one.

I find it more useful to follow emotion rather than hard logic when trying to "solve" this particular paradox. The ship was dedicated to honoring Theseus, so it shouldn't matter whether the original parts are still on it. What's important is the memory and narrative behind it. The Ship of Theseus is no different from restored historical monuments that we visit with fascination.

While it can be fun to debate a question like this for hours, the more intriguing idea is how it relates to the concept and construction of personal identity: How much can you change and still be the same you? What makes today you and five-year-old you the same despite a lifetime of change, from the cells in your body to the values in your mind?

We are more than just the sum of the parts that make up our bodies. The aging process affects everyone. Although we may identify with cultural constructs such as a particular occupation, lifestyle, religion, or nationality, these can also change over time. Our fleeting thoughts and emotions do not solely define us either. Even our most deeply-held perspectives and ideas about ourselves and the world tend to change with time.

Yet in an amazing and sometimes illogical way, we remain the same at some level. Why is that?

Memories seem to tie it all together. Even though we may lose some and gain new ones, they provide us with a sense of continuity and presence over time. This is why individuals who suffer from the cruel loss of long-term memory due to an accident or Alzheimer's in old age appear to be a shell of their previous selves.

Ultimately, the Ship of Theseus paradox reminds us that although we often find comfort in viewing identity as fixed and unchanging, it is actually malleable, ever-changing, and perhaps most importantly, precious.

The evolving nature of our identities should be liberating. Instead of allowing fear to trap us in identities that no longer serve us and hinder us from trying on new ones, we should embrace the notion that our identities are constantly changing, much like our bodies, minds, emotions, and circumstances.

As long as you retain (most of) your memories, you are still you.